Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

“In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” Thus begins the novel, Warlight, by the Booker Prize winning author of The English Patient. Set during and after World War II, Warlight captures the lasting impact of war on those individuals who worked behind the scenes in British intelligence. Ondaatje focuses on the effect of secrecy on the children of those operatives living double lives.

The narrator of the book is Nathaniel--first introduced as a 14-year-old boy, and later, as a 29-year-old man.  Seen through his eyes, the first 180 pages introduce us to unfamiliar people and places and seem to lead nowhere. Ondaatje brilliantly mirrors the sense of confusion that Nathaniel and his sister Ruth feel after their parents disappear.

 All I knew, Nathaniel reflects, was that the political maps of [my father’s] era were vast and coastal and I would never know if he was close to us or disappeared into one of those distances forever, a person who, as the line went, would live in many places and die everywhere. (p. 180)

The term, “warlight,” refers to the practice of blackout during the war in England to prevent German bombers from seeing their targets.  The evocative prose evokes a semi-darkness, bathing the novel in shades of grey. The shadows become a metaphor for childhood recollections, which Nathaniel refers to as “many unlabeled splinters in my memory. (p. 180) Some of the most beautiful scenes are on the Thames at night as Nathaniel and a man known as The Darter pick up and deliver greyhounds for the illegal dog racing industry.  Ondaatje calls them “shy travelers” –an apt term for these graceful animals.

In the moonless night river, Nathaniel recalls, I calmed them by simply raising my teenage head in a gesture of strictness whenever they attempted to bark. I felt I was quieting an orchestra, and it had the charm and pleasure of first power. (p. 79)

The plot meanders in the first part of the book much as the Thames and its estuaries. It is only in the last third of the book that the reader and Nathaniel discover bits of the truth. However, Ondaatje is too talented a writer to tie the ends up neatly and the lives depicted are still shrouded in mystery.

 

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